Philadelphia businesses finally reopen after Ida, just as hurricane season arrives

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Nine months after Ida caused record-breaking flooding along the Schuylkill River, some Manayunk and East Falls businesses are finally reopening, just as hurricane season begins anew.

Several spots are coming back with altered services, like a brewpub that stopped making beer, or a former bar that turned into a haunted house. Some are still closed — including a U.S. post office — and a few shuttered for good.

“The thing that hurt the most is that these businesses were almost putting COVID in the rear view mirror and then this hit at the same time,” Leo Dillinger, of the Manayunk Development Corporation, told Billy Penn.

In both riverside neighborhoods, people are bracing for similar storms in the future. Experts are predicting another above-average hurricane season this summer.

Greg’s Kitchen is still waiting on clearance to open, said owner Greg Gillin, who’s hoping it’s in time for the Manayunk Arts Festival on June 25.

“If I could go back in time, I would go to September and tell myself ‘it’s going to be nine months… you need to find a new spot,’” he said. But now that there’s “light at the end of the tunnel,” he is looking forward to reopening.

The Main Street restaurant itself didn’t flood, he explained, but the basement took on 7 feet of water, fatally damaging the building’s electrical system. An initial estimated timeframe was 4 to 6 weeks, but a “perfect storm” of inconveniences dragged that out, Gillin said. Supply chain issues, scarcity of contractors and numerous bureaucratic processes caused one delay after another.

Throughout all of that time, he’s had no income. He didn’t get any money from his insurers, because they wouldn’t cover a water-related event. He got a loan from the Small Business Administration and applied for grants, but it won’t make up for the loss of business he experienced. That cost has dwarfed any equipment and food losses from the basement flood, he said.

Ida caused over $100 million in damage to public infrastructure in Pennsylvania, officials have said. For business owners in Manayunk and East Falls alone, the storm had a multimillion-dollar impact. Several said they applied for FEMA relief but didn’t get it.

The Schuylkill River overflowed into Manayunk in September 2021
Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Plans changed, lessons learned

Urban flooding is becoming a bigger problem around the globe for a few reasons.

“Climate change is one of them, obviously, with heavier rains and more frequent storms,” said Xavier Leflaive, of the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, who studies climate change and water. At the same time, “As cities grow, it’s likely that the impervious surfaces will increase, and increase runoff.”

Philadelphia has been working for a decade on its “Green City, Clean Waters” plan, which aims to increase the amount of porous surfaces in the city. It’s kept 2.7 billion gallons of polluted water out of the rivers since its launch in 2011, per the Philadelphia Water Department.

Leflaive suggested businesses should aim to “build back better,” rather than rebuilding the same as before. “It’s wise to factor these risks in, because you don’t want to be hit again.”

Brian Corcodilos is doing something totally different — and not entirely by choice. In March of last year, he purchased the building that was formerly the Manayunk party bar Mad River, planning to find another bar or restaurant as a tenant.

That September, Ida hit. The building, which dates to the late 1800s, has had a flooding event every few years, Corcodilos said, but never that extreme. When the water level rose seven feet above the first floor, he knew it would sink his chances.

“Everyone saw that building on every news outlet in Philadelphia” as one of the flooded properties, Corcodilos said.

Now, instead of renting the space, he plans to open a haunted house to operate on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights this October. It will also open on Saturdays during the day for “non-scary,” family-friendly festivities. He plans to hire actors, makeup artists and security staff, and hopes his customers will patronize other Manayunk businesses before or after their haunted house experience.

“I do know I’m going to get flooded again, but I just don’t know if it’ll be this extreme. The business I put up in there should be able to weather this if it happens again,” Corcodilos said.

For some businesses, post-Ida changes are difficult to view in a positive light.

Manayunk Brewing Company was able to reopen its bar and restaurant in February, but isn’t brewing beer anymore. Ida caused 9 feet of water to flood the space, tipping over its beer tanks, and it would have cost $500,000 to restore, owner Mike Rose told the Philadelphia Business Journal.

J. Littlewood & Son, which operated a dyeing business for over 150 years in Manayunk, had to close permanently. Marijuana dispensary Verilife on Main Street in Manayunk, which opened in June 2020, was forced to shut down as well.

Ida flooding in East Falls, September 2021
Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn

Not if, but when?

As the one-year anniversary approaches, the East Falls Development Corporation is working on finding resources to help the community with “emotional and mental health issues or trauma” related to Ida’s impact, executive director Michelle Feldman told Billy Penn.

“We are a riverfront community. That is one of the many amazing things about East Falls. It also means that when these events happen, we bear the brunt,” Feldman said.

One of the hardest hit places was the post office, she said, which remains closed. Another wat the restaurant In Riva, which just reopened May 20.

Major Wing Lee Grocery Market, known for selling cheap hoagies alongside other everyday wares, was also badly flooded. It reopened May 6, and on a recent Wednesday afternoon, less than a month later, it was buzzing with customers.

“After 40 years I have a nice customer base,” owner Doi Dang said.

After the storm, Dang tried to use his insurance to pay for the damages, but neither flood nor liability insurance helped him out — “they didn’t want to deal with my public adjuster,” he said. He applied for FEMA relief, but that didn’t come through.

He was able to pay for the repairs using a “nest egg” of savings. The store was closed for 8 months, Dang said, but he estimates it could have reopened sooner if he had support from insurance or government.

Still, he’s “not worried” about future potential for severe flooding at his store. Besides Ida, there’s only been one other flooding event in his 40 years of business, he said.

“We remain optimistic,” said development corporation director Feldman, but “we know Ida is not going to be a once in a century storm.” The organization is developing proactive measures to prepare, some in collaboration with Manayunk community organizations.

Dillinger, from Manayunk, said his group now sends out an email alert to its businesses when significant storms are expected in the Schuylkill River area. “You don’t want to scare people but you also want to keep them prepared.”

Gillin, of Greg’s Kitchen, said next time there’s a big storm, he plans to start running a pump early and continuously, so the water can’t build up.

“These things are seemingly happening with more frequency and more intensity,” Gillin said. “It definitely will happen again at some point — whether it’s 50 years from now and I’m dead, or 10 years from now, or this hurricane season.”

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